Mental Health: Definitions

Spartans for Safety - Mental Health


People often use the word "depression" to refer to general, everyday feelings of sadness or being down. In fact, depression is a medical condition that can affect a person's ability to work, study, interact with people or take care of themselves. The symptoms of depression can last months to years if untreated.

Depression isn't always easy to spot.

It may be expressed through the abuse of drugs and alcohol; sexual promiscuity; or hostile, aggressive, and risk-taking behavior. Many factors can contribute to the onset of depression, including the presence of other emotional disorders, stress, poor nutrition, physical illness, personal loss and relationship difficulties.

The good news is that depression is highly treatable. Medication and/or counseling can help. It is not uncommon for people who are depressed to think about suicide, and it is important to for someone having these thoughts to seek help immediately.

Connect to more information on diagnosing and treating depression through our resources and links section.

Signs and Symptoms of Depression

  • Persistently sad, anxious, irritable or empty mood
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, including sex
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Feeling tired or rundown
  • Significant change in appetite and/or weight
  • Anger and rage
  • Overreaction to criticism
  • Feeling unable to meet expectations
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating, remembering or making decisions
  • Feeling restless or agitated
  • Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness or guilt
  • Persistent physical symptoms such as headaches, digestive problems or chronic pain that do not respond to routine treatment
  • Substance abuse problems
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder or manic-depression is more serious than the everyday ups and downs that most people experience. Bipolar disorder is a medical condition in which a person experiences extreme highs (mania) and extreme lows (depression).

During a manic episode, a person's mood is excessively "high," irritable, or aggressive. It is common for a person who is manic to think that nothing is wrong with their behavior even though it is extremely distressing to family and friends.

During a depressive episode, a person may feel sad or lose interest in previously enjoyable activities. Someone with bipolar disorder can experience a variety of mood patterns, such as having mostly episodes of mania or mostly episodes of depression. Another person may cycle rapidly between the two. It is also possible for someone to remain symptom-free for extended periods of time.

Bipolar disorder can affect a person's ability to work, study, interact with others, or take care of themselves. However, bipolar disorder can be effectively treated with counseling and/or medication.

It is not uncommon for people who have bipolar disorder to think about suicide, and if someone is experiencing these thoughts, it is important to seek help immediately.

Signs and Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder


  • Excessively "high," euphoric mood
  • Extreme irritability
  • Unrealistic beliefs in one's abilities and powers, such as feeling able to control world events
  • Decreased need for sleep without feeling tired
  • Racing thoughts or fast speech
  • Distractibility or difficulty concentrating
  • Agitation
  • Spending sprees
  • Increased energy, activity and restlessness
  • Poor judgment
  • Lasting period of behavior that is different than usual
  • Increased sexual drive
  • Abuse of drugs, particularly cocaine, alcohol and sleeping medications
  • Provocative, intrusive or aggressive behavior
  • Denial that anything is wrong


  • Persistently sad, anxious, irritable or empty mood
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, including sex
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Feeling tired or rundown

Eating Disorders

Society has become increasingly obsessed with weight and physical appearance, and many people have tried some kind of diet at one time or another. But there's a big difference between "normal" dieting and eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.

A person with anorexia is significantly underweight but still worries about being or becoming fat. In contrast, a person with bulimia is often a normal weight for their age and height, so those closest to them may not realize that anything is wrong.

Eating disorders can cause serious, and potentially fatal, medical problems that affect the heart, brain, and other body organs. It is important to know that men can have these disorders too, although they are much more common in women.

Signs and Symptoms of Eating Disorders


  • Weighing 15% or more below normal body weight
  • Weight loss, sometimes by means of self-induced vomiting, abuse of laxatives or diuretics, or excessive exercise
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Seeing oneself as overweight no matter how underweight
  • Anxious or ritualistic behavior at mealtimes
  • Menstrual changes or the absence of menstruation in women
  • Fatigue
  • Depression


  • Repeatedly eating larger than normal amounts of food in a short period of time and feeling unable to control this behavior (binging)
  • Preventing weight gain after a binge by means of self-induced vomiting, abuse of laxatives or enemas (purging), fasting or excessive exercise
  • Unhealthy focus on body shape and weight
  • Depression
  • Constipation
  • Discolored teeth and gums


Colleges are designed to be challenging academically, personally, and socially. Some anxiety is a natural by-product of the accelerated pace of learning and growth. To be sure, everyone feels anxious in certain situations, but anxiety disorders can make it difficult for students to function.

Anxiety is a feeling of worry that can be a completely normal response to stress. However, it can also be out of proportion to what's going on or be impossible to control. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the US. Anxiety can feel so overwhelming that a person's ability to work, study, interact with people, or follow a daily routine is affected.

Contrary to what prior generations of your family may have believed, anxiety disorders are not "all in one's head." Anxiety can be a real medical condition, developing from a complex set of biological and environmental factors, including genetics, biochemistry and traumatic life events.

Fortunately, it is possible to manage anxiety with counseling and/or medication.

Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders

  • Intense episodes of fear or panic
  • Recurring nightmares
  • Avoidance of social situations
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Repeated, unwanted thoughts (obsessions)
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Upsetting, intrusive memories of a traumatic event
  • Physical symptoms such as nausea, stomach pain, rapid heart rate, muscle tension, sweating, shaking, dizziness, numbness, or difficulty breathing

Substance abuse

Drinking alcohol is such an accepted part of socializing and relaxing in our society, especially on college campuses, that it's easy to overlook its potential dangers.

Even the "experimental" use of alcohol and drugs can negatively impact a student's life. Alcohol is a depressant, so if an individual is struggling with stress or depressed, alcohol can make him or her feel worse. Moreover, alcohol use can become alcohol abuse which, in turn, can lead to alcohol dependence.

People who are dependent on alcohol or drugs may build up tolerance, where they need increasing amounts to feel the same effects. They may spend more and more time obtaining and using them, as well as recovering from their effects.

People who are substance-dependent may find themselves repeatedly unable to quit using substances, even once they recognize that they have a problem. When they do quit, they can go into withdrawal, which – depending on the substance – can be life-threatening and should be treated immediately.

Fortunately, there are a variety of effective treatments for substance abuse and dependence, such as counseling and/or medication. Because substance use can seriously impair judgment, any concern that a user may be thinking about suicide should be taken seriously; seek help immediately.

Signs and Symptoms of a Drug or Alcohol Problem

  • Repeated inability to meet obligations
  • Repeated dangerous behaviors
  • Repeated legal problems
  • Repeated interpersonal problems

Self-Injury or Cutting

Most people have heard of cutting, but many don't know that this type of self-injury is often linked to other emotional disorders.

Self-Injury is the act of intentionally injuring on oneself, usually without suicidal intent. Cutting is a term that is often used broadly, cutting is really only one form of what is known as "self-injurious behavior" or "non-suicidal self-injury."

Other types of self-injury include scratching, burning, ripping or pulling skin or hair, swallowing toxic substances, self-bruising, and breaking bones. While cutting may occur on any part of the body, it is most common on the hands, wrists, stomach, and thighs. Tattoos and body piercing are not typically considered self-injurious behavior unless undertaken with the intention of causing harm.

Not everyone who cuts does so for the same reasons. Some people report overwhelming sadness, anxiety, or emotional numbness to be common triggers. Other reasons include a need to feel in control; relieve stress; create visible and treatable wounds; purify one's body; reenact a trauma in an attempt to resolve it; or protect others from one's emotional pain.

Although not always true, cutting is frequently linked to childhood abuse (especially sexual abuse), depression, anxiety, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, and substance abuse problems.

Cutting is a way for some people to cope with their emotions or outside stressors. Regardless of the cause, self-injury may best be understood as an unhealthy coping mechanism. Treatment for cutting focuses on enhancing people's awareness of the stressors that trigger cutting and on helping them identify, practice, and use more productive and positive means of coping.

Signs and Symptoms of Self-Injury

  • Unexplained burns, cuts, bruising, scars, healing or healed wounds, or similar markings on the skin
  • Implausible stories which may explain one, but not all, physical injuries
  • Dressing inappropriately for the season (e.g., consistently wearing long sleeves or pants in summer)
  • Constant use of wristbands, large watchbands, or large bracelets
  • Frequent bandages or other methods of covering wounds (e.g., make-up)
  • Odd/unexplainable paraphernalia (e.g., razor blades)
  • Unwillingness to participate in activities that require less body coverage (e.g., swimming)